Scientific Pharisees

There is a feature article on Richard Dawkins in the September 2005 issue of Discover magazine, by Stephen S. Hall, Darwin’s Rottweiler. It isn’t in the archives yet – only the first few paragraphs are on line. Hall credits the title of his article to Alister McGrath, in his book Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. It plays on the nickname for Thomas Henry Huxley – Darwin’s bulldog. It also plays on one of the nicknames – God’s Rottweiler – given to Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) by the media for his ferocious defences of Catholic orthodoxy during his tenure as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It implies that Dawkins is dogmatic and intolerant. Hall presents an overview of Dawkins’ work, with some attention to his limitations as a communicator. He is a good writer, and presents science to the general public in clear, accessible and poetic language. He is a well-recognized celebrity intellectual. Hall reports on Dawkins’ appearance in a panel discussion on the usual issue – how scientific views of evolution and religiously based views of a divinely created world should be presented in public schools. He reports on Dawkins’ turning on people who agree with him that Creation science and Intelligent design are phony, because they say they have religious beliefs and can reconcile scientific theories with their own religious belief. He seems to alienate them, and parts of a a friendly audience. Dawkins seems to have earned the Rottweiler nickname honestly. In spite of his charm, intelligence, and verbal skills, his social and political judgment seems to be impaired. This has allowed religious writers like McGrath to marginalize him as a fanatic, and to discredit his arguments.

Dawkins has the habit of engaging on ideas and principles that are relevant in his mind, but which transform a debate over educational policy into a debate over the existence of God and the intelligence of people who believe in God. Dawkins is a good scientist with a coherent body of ideas. He is not simply a theoretician. He is a good writer and can argue persuasively, but there is a compulsive element in his personality that leads him to talk about atheism and to attack religion passionately. His intensity doesn’t play well and it undermines the persuasive force of his presentation of scientific ideas. I think the article addresses some of the things I commented on in an entry called Atheists, Darwinists.
McGrath, once a scientist, is an Anglican/evangelical theologian and a prolific religious writer. Much of his work falls into the category of apologetics – the justification of religious thinking and practice against intellectual and social criticism. He is fond of inverting the arguments of secular atheists against religion. I don’t know if I have mentioned him, but I have referred to some books by the Catholic theologian George Weigel and other writers associated with the conservative Catholic magazine First Things. An atheist like Dawkins may say that there is no material, scientific empirical proof of the existence of God. McGrath will say that Dawkins has failed to disprove the existence of God. Dawkins, in the anti-clerical tradition of the Enlightenment, will say that religion has been perpetuated by an aristocratic class of priests who are interested in maintaining their own power, wealth and status. McGrath will say that science has been perpetuated by teachers, writers and academics who are interested in maintaining their own power, wealth and status. Atheists point to the violence inspired by religion – inquistions and wars. Weigel has claimed that more violence has been done in the name of secular ideologies, for instance the persecution of the early Christians by the Romans, the Jacobin phases of the French Revolution, and Communist persecutions in Russia, Eastern Europe and China.
This discourse isn’t a debate or a dialectic. It’s an exercise in vilification and self-justification. The talking heads on each side comfort the faithful, only occasionally winning someone to a change of heart. I think many people take some interest in the issue, although the argument itself probably only interests a small minority of humanity.
Many religious writers like to describe celebrity scientists and public intellectuals like Dawkins as the priests of a secular religion. Richard Dawkins, not surprizingly, is familiar with the accusation and disagrees with it – as he did in “Is Science a Religion” an article published in the Humanist in 1997. His response is that science deals with evidence about things, and religion takes advantage of innate human vulnerability to emotional and social forces to get people to belief in superstitious nonsense. It’s a clear argument which isn’t, unfortunately, responsive to the social and psychological dimensions of the charge.
Michael Ruse, in his writing on “evolutionism” as a religion, has adopted their terminology and arguments. There is some merit to the argument. Priests and secular scientists like Dawkins are both involved in the persuasive communication and presentation of ideas. Members of both sets often come across as confident in their abilities and ideas, overly concerned with language and argument, and determined to win all arguments – arrogant, pedantic, dogmatic. We are looking at people with special knowledge and training, privileged or empowered to communicate ideas within specific institutional settings. They are accustomed to deference within those institutions. They are conscious of the need to maintain their status and popularity. They believe in what they are doing, and some of them bring genuine enthusiasm to their work. Their confidence and enthusiasm is seen by people who don’t have their privileges, who have different interests, who compete with them for resources and status, or who disagree with them, as smug, arrogant, and self-righteous. That doesn’t win friends. The Jesus story about the Pharisee and the publican appeals to the innate human dislike for the smug self-satisfied attitude of the powerful and successful person.
The idea of the priest as possessing special knowledge about sacred books and laws, as an interpreter, analyst and teacher, has dominated Western civilization since the Classical period. Mathematics, science, philosophy, art, literature, drama and education were closely connected to religious institutions for most of western history. Education particularly was handled by priests. This applies to other cultures and religions. However, this only one aspect of religious priesthood. There are two dominant paradigms of priesthood. There are rational, scholarly, persuasive communicators working with language, ideas, ethics and law, and there mystical, intuitive gurus who work on leading people to directly feel or know God or a transcendant divine entity through rituals, music, poetry and meditation (and occasionally with a little psychotropic medication). These are not strict exclusive categories – most religious leaders combine elements of both paradigms. The television evangelist delivers dramatic inspirational speeches, in a carefully staged social setting, calculated to produce a powerful emotional conversional encounter with Jesus. The modern New Age writer-lecture does the same, for a different audience.
Ruse argues that scientists are passionate about “doing” science, for the pleasure of solving puzzles and understanding the beauty and poetry of nature. He suggests this is similiar to the way a religious thinker finds evidence of the presence of God. Priests are involved with religious ideas, which are largely supernatural. They work with rituals and social events intended to reinforce belief. Scientists, while some of them can get mystical about nature, are concerned undertanding things and techniques. Priests are concerned with unseen supernatural “reality”. Scientists are concerned with the real world. Ruse is right to see the discursive manipulation of words, symbols and ideas to explain and represent reality as a fundamental aspect of human consciousness, underlying philosophy, ideology, science, religion, art, drama, sports, and games. However McGrath, Ruse, and other apologists for religion purposefully fail to analyze the differences in those practices. There is more to religion than a set of beliefs, a body of writings and an emotional investment in one’s own beliefs and theories.
Calling scientists and writers “priests” is a rhetorical trick (and I have used it myself). It addresses temperament and communication style, but it does not accurately describe the intellectual and social issues involved in their project.


One response to “Scientific Pharisees”

  1. It is not true that McGrath coined the phrase “Darwin’s Rottweiler”.
    The phrase was used of T.H. Huxley by Adrian Desmond, in his biography: “Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple” (1994).
    The earliest use applied to Dawkins I can find was by Charles Simonyi in 1996: